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It’s A Gray Area: Never waste an opportunity with family

The first sentence in the preface of my book that attempts to help new judges “learn the ropes” says, “The best decision I have ever made was in choosing my parents.” That is true because they always gave me stability, boundaries, stimulation and love. But I also believe that my successful “choice” gave me a moral obligation to help those people who had not “chosen” quite so well.

My wonderful mother, Elizabeth Polin Gray, was always my biggest fan and supporter. But she was a success story in her own right. Mom was raised in San Luis Obispo with four siblings by “old school” parents who believed that, after graduating from high school, girls who did not get married and begin raising a family should either become secretaries or sales clerks.

Nevertheless, Mom was able to graduate from UC Berkeley, mostly by staying at school during the summers because she had no assurance that if she came home, she would ever be able to return to school. She also was the personification of the old saying that behind every successful husband is a supportive wife. For example, when my father was the president of the State Bar of California, my mother was an integral part of the inevitable social and political demands that accompany such a venture.

My wonderful father, William P. Gray, was a self-made man. In fact, he was the living refutation of the old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.” The more exposure people had to my father, the greater respect was engendered (except regarding his golf game).


After high school and during the Great Depression, he made four trips across the Pacific as a cadet with the Dollar Steamship Co. to help his parents out financially. This experience was quite traumatic for a young man who had been raised in a conservative Baptist environment, but also quite broadening. After that he put himself through UCLA and then through Harvard Law School.

During World War II my father eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army with the inspector general’s office in Washington, D.C. After the war he decided not to return to his former law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, and instead opened his own. During the years that followed, Dad was well known for excellence and integrity in the practice of law, with his word being his bond. That was the main reason why many years later and without any knowledge or input on my part, our group here in Orange County that emphasizes excellence, civility, professionalism and ethics in the practice of law was named the William P. Gray Chapter of the American Inns of Court.

Dad also served as the president of the Los Angeles Bar Assn., and later as the president of the State Bar. In 1966, Dad was one of the very few Republicans to be appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as a federal judge, which also makes him, to my knowledge, one of three state bar presidents in California who has also served in that position. (Judge Margaret Morrow and Judge Andrew J. Guilford being the other two.)

To this day I continue to hear comments from attorneys and other legal professionals about what a fine and exemplary judge William P. Gray had been. In fact, recently when one of his former law clerks was appointed as a judge on that same court, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Raymond C. Fisher mentioned that the new judge had previously clerked for “the legendary Bill Gray.” That is certainly the way I think of my father, but it is deeply gratifying that others not only have the same opinion, but also say so publicly.


Of course there was the time in 1984 when I was a newly appointed judge of the Municipal Court when my father was presiding over a big case alleging the overcrowding of the Orange County Jail. It was really difficult for me to try to be an unobtrusive young judge learning the ropes at the same time that my father was threatening to hold all of the members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the sheriff in contempt of court. But even while this was occurring, I continued to hear comments from the members of the board and even Sheriff Brad Gates himself that they admired my father, and felt he was a good and fair judge doing what needed to be done.

My father’s father was 93 years old when he died. When that happened, my dad stated the obvious: that we had no complaints because his father had lived a long and productive life. But, he said, “I miss him.” We lost my father just short of his 80th birthday, and my mother when she was 84, so we have no complaints either. But I assure you that I miss them.

So this leads me to a gentle reminder. All we really have in this world is our family, as well as our friends who become our extended family. Life is short, so don’t forget to get your good times and hugs in with the people you care about, and also be sure to tell them you love them. You will never regret having taken the opportunity to do so.

As the sign says at the Crab Cooker on the Balboa Peninsula, “The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.” The main thing in life is our family and friends, and when they are gone you will miss them.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of “Wearing the Robe: The Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts” (Square One Press, 2009), and can be contacted at